A cyclist in Bogota. Credit: Ashden

The London Borough of Waltham Forest and the Colombian city of Bogota both have growing populations and thriving economies, but they also face worrying levels of traffic congestion and air pollution.

While the two places are thousands of miles apart, their leaders have used the same core ideas to tackle these problems and promote better health and economic growth. Their ambitious plans to increase walking and cycling have made them finalists in the 2019 Ashden Awards.

Bogota, the capital city of Colombia, grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s as people fled violence in the countryside. But the government has tackled the big drug cartels and the city is now a Latin American success story. Like many other cities in North and South America, Bogota was built around the car, with major highways cutting through the city centre.

The current Mayor, Enrique Penalosa is determined to shift the balance away from private cars to cycling and public transport – which is the way that most lower income people commute in to the city. He launched his ‘Plan Bici’ – Bike Plan – on taking office in 2015.

Waltham Forest is in North London, bisected by the busy North Circular Road. Population growth in the borough has meant more cars, more rat-runs through residential roads, and poor air quality. Waltham Forest also has higher than average childhood obesity.

Several incremental approaches to address the borough’s traffic problems failed. Then the deputy leader of the Council, Councillor Clyde Loakes, launched an ambitious plan to revolutionise active travel in the borough, using £27m of funding from the Mayor of London.

The Hornbeam Joyriders. Credit: London Borough of Waltham Forest

The cycling programmes in Waltham Forest and Bogota have now been running for a few years and both have succeeded in getting residents onto their bikes. There are some striking similarities between the two projects, key success factors that other cities can learn from.

Cross-department working

In Bogota, the Bike Plan is a priority for all city hall departments – from the economic development and education departments that are together building a college for cycling maintenance, to the tourism department promoting Bogota’s Sunday Ciclovias when roads are closed to cars. In Waltham Forest, the highways department works closely with the public health team, and the cycling programme is already raising life expectancy.

Better environments for cycling and walking

While improving safety has been a key priority for Waltham Forest and Bogota, both have strived to make environments that are more pleasant – quiet cycle routes, more paving, and more planting along roadsides.

Celebrating cycle culture

Bogota runs cycling events every month, often attracting thousands of people, and ‘Le Tour de Waltham Forest’ is a popular yearly event. In both places, organisers encourage wide participation beyond the ‘Mamils’ – middle aged men in lycra. Women’s cycling groups are flourishing.

Joined-up journeys

 Commuters in Waltham Forest and Bogota often cycle to the nearest train or bus station – and they need somewhere safe to leave their bike during the day. Waltham Forest has built cycle hubs at all of the borough’s rail stations, and Bogota has thousands of bike parking spaces all along the route of the Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transport System.

Active travel at the heart of transport planning

Highway design guides in both places now include principles for promoting cycling and walking, so that any work to upgrade roads also encourages active travel.

Both Waltham Forest and Bogota have faced opposition to their work to encourage active travel – often from car owners, but also from businesses that fear they will lose customers due to restrictions on cars.

But in both places, the programmes have focused on delivering wider benefits beyond easing congestion – more pleasant public spaces, better health, and new jobs. This approach combined with strong political leadership is most likely to gain buy-in from citizens.

As cities in both the developed world and emerging economies look to cut air pollution and congestion, Waltham Forest and Bogota offer inspiring examples to follow.

  • Our free climate action co-benefits toolkit shows local authorities how to create happier, more sustainable neighbourhoods. It features more information on Waltham Forest – and many more real-world success stories.